'My name was dragged through the mud'

Recently it was reported that Bulelani Ngcuka was seeking to charge Phillip Powell with illegal possession of weapons.

LAST MONTH it was reported that Bulelani Ngcuka, the National Director of Public Prosecutions, was seeking ways to get Phillip Powell, the former Inkatha Freedom Party MPL, back to South Africa to face charges of illegal possession of weapons. Ngucka first threatened Powell with prosecution in 1999, in the run-up to the June election. Powell was told that he would be arrested and charged unless he revealed the site of weapons that Vlakplaas commander Eugene de Kock had supplied to the IFP in 1993, at the height of the party's conflict with the ANC. On May 10, 1999 Powell duly co-operated, revealing a seven-ton arms and explosives cache at Nqutu, which was blown up the next day.

Despite Powell's co-operation, Ngcuka refused to rule out prosecution if further investigation revealed more weapons. Powell, however, had taken the precaution of obtaining a signed statement from the provincial director of prosecutions, Mokotedi Mpshe, granting him immunity. "I decline to prosecute Phillip Powell," it read. "I regard the matter as final." Powell later moved to Britain with, it is believed, the full agreement of the ANC national leadership.

The idea that Ncguka, who is reported to have issued a warrant for his arrest in March this year, could force Powell, a British citizen, to return to South Africa and then prosecute him successfully, is risible. The story was in fact designed to serve a quite different purpose - to deflect attention from the recent unseemly spat between Ngucka and the ANC chairman in KwaZulu-Natal, S'bu Ndebele.

Their row arose from the trial in July of six ANC members for the murder of, or conspiracy to murder, Joseph Sikhonde, mayor of Nongoma in northern KwaZulu-Natal. Sikhonde, an IFP leader and principal of the local high school, was gunned down in an ambush on June 5 last year.

Ndebele raised eyebrows when he applied in the Pietermaritzburg High Court for an interdict to block the testimony of the chief state witness in the trial, Cliff Nkuna, who had alleged in an affidavit that Ndebele, King Goodwill Zwelithini and others, had plotted to assassinate the IFP mayor. Nkuna's testimony, argued Ndebele, would fuel tensions and bring death and untold sorrow to the province. He wanted an order stating that the correctness, truthfulness and relevance of Nkuna's evidence had to be verified.

Before the interdict hearing, Ndebele approached the KwaZulu-Natal Judge President, Vuka Shabalala, and told him of his plan to block the witness. Shabalala informed him that there that there was nothing Ndebele could do to stop Nkuna giving evidence. Judge Jan Hugo duly dismissed his application with costs, ruling that the court was not in a position to determine issues of relevance in a case being heard by another judge at the Mtubatuba High court.

In court, state witness Nkuna caused a stir when he claimed that, in May last year, he had met Ndebele, ANC provincial safety and security MEC Bheki Cele, and others at the Stilwater Motel in Vryheid, where the assassination plot was hatched. Nkuna alleged that Ndebele had handed out cellphones to facilitate communications and had said that he did not want to see Sikhonde alive. Cele had produced a briefcase containing bundles of R100 and R200 notes and thrown two of them to him, saying "that is just pocket money". Nkuna also alleged that he had a meeting at King Zwelithini's palace at Kwa Dlamahlahla, where he heard that "His Majesty would not feel free if Sikhonde was still alive". According to Nkuna, he was told that the king wanted the job done before the end of June.

Three days after Nkuna completed his colourful testimony, the High Court in Mtabutuba was informed that the witness had been shot in Pretoria and was in hiding. But police were puzzled about why it took Nkuna three days to report the alleged attempt on his life, and why there was no record that he had been treated at the Ga-Rankoa Hospital, as he said he had been.

Nkuna, aka Cliff Nkutha, Cliff Mthethwa and Themba Khumalo, who described himself as a representative of Justice for All, a company that deals with special assignments and investigations, is apparently well known to the National Intelligence Agency. An NIA report describes Nkuna as an information peddler, who regularly offers information to the agency, the police, the IFP and ministers in KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng.

Acquitting the six accused in the Durban High Court (the trial was moved from Mtubatuba), Acting Judge Rashid Vahed dismissed Nkuna's testimony as "a wild nonsensical frolic of his own imagination", which no one in his right mind should take any notice of. He also criticised the public prosecution authorities for using Nkuna as a state witness without properly investigating his claims. By implicating the ANC, the allegations had seriously threatened the fragile peace in the province, Vahed said.

Thus vindicated, Ndebele went completely over the top. He said that he planned to take legal action against Bulelani Ngucka, the provincial director of public prosecutions Mpshe and Nkuna, "for dragging his name through the mud". He accused Ngucka of racism, claiming that he had treated the Zulu king "worse than a nigger".

The ANC provincial working committee issued a statement backing the legal action, and calling for Ngucka's immediate resignation as he was an "embarrassment to the justice system in South Africa". It described Ngucka's office as the "mother of all obstacles in the fight against crime". The committee was particularly upset that the office of the National Director of Public Prosecutions "is not obliged to inform even His Majesty the King if his name is implicated in murder . . . Yet this courtesy was offered to Hansie Cronje and Phillip Powell."